The striking glass and steel Central Library building has served as an architectural landmark in the city since it was completed in 2004. However, the branch has gone through many location changes and building iterations since Seattle’s book-borrowing system first launched in the late 1880s…
First Central Library, ca. 1890 – 1899
Photo: Seattle Public Library
In 1890, Seattle officially launched its city-sanctioned library system. The Central Library’s first home was located on the fifth floor of the Occidental Building in Pioneer Square (pictured above). According to library records, a lumber company vice president borrowed its first book, a brand new copy of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad.
Yesler Mansion Central Library, ca. 1899 – 1901
Photo: Seattle Public Library
In 1899, the Central Library moved into what was supposed to be a more permanent home at the Yesler Mansion at 3rd Avenue and James Street. At that time, circulation rose by 26 percent and over 130,000 volumes were available to the public.
Less than two years later in 1901, the entirely wooden structure was destroyed in a fire. Along with the building, most of the library’s collection was also lost. Days after the blaze, noted philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated $200,000 so a new library could be built. In 1902, the city agreed to purchase land for a new space at a cost of $100,000.
The new library site was located along 4th Avenue and Spring Street in downtown. The city held a worldwide architectural competition to help design the Carnegie-backed building. In 1903, a German architect named Peter J. Weber won the contest with his Beaux-Arts design.
Central Library, ca. 1906 – 1957
The Weber-designed 55,000-square-foot library was dedicated in 1906. Due to the project’s popularity, library membership climbed 94 percent and 50 percent more books were borrowed.
But by the time World War II ended, the aging and busy Central Library was again in need of significant upgrades. In 1949 it would receive a $400,000 book stack addition, but that wouldn’t be enough — an all-new structure was needed.
In 1957, Bindon & Wright were tapped to design a new $4.5 million Central Library building on the same downtown site as its Carnegie predecessor.
Central Library, ca. 1960 – 2001
The second, purpose-built Central Library building was dedicated on March 26, 1960. The mid-century structure boasted modern features over five spacious floors, including the first escalator in an American library, a drive-up window for book pick-ups and the first extensive use of artwork to grace a new public building in Seattle.
By the mid-1990s, library circulation had soared past 5 million items and annual donations topped $1 million. A strong economy fueled by the dot-com era emboldened Seattle voters to approve a $196.4 million “Libraries for All” bond measure in 1998 that made another new Central Library building possible.
This time Seattle called on Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and local firm LMN Architects to design the space. In 2001, the Central Library collection was moved into a temporary space at the Washington Convention Center.
Central Library, ca. 2004 – today
In May 2004, the new Seattle Central Library opened its doors to the public. The 362,987-square-foot structure held 11 floors with a community space on each. The total cost of the project, including the temporary move, was just shy of $166 million.